MUSIC: From punk to politics, Joe Keithley rocks the vote

GigCIty Edmonton Joe KeithleyJoe Keithley knows there’s no sense trying to hide 35 years of punk rock fury.

When the legendary D.O.A. frontman announced last fall that he would run for the N.D.P. nomination in B.C.’s Coquitlam-Burke Mountain riding, he was well aware he had a spectacular rap sheet ripe for potential mud-slinging opponents to pick from.

Keithley, widely known by his punk handle Joey Shithead, has touted anarchy, penned more than a few profanity-laden tunes, and once urinated on a crowd in San Francisco. As recently as 2009, in D.O.A.’s video for “Police Brutality,” he cheekily holds a sign stating he was arrested for “disrespecting authority.”

Keithley says, “There are ills in society. Pretty well all the songs were a reaction to those ills, or things that weren’t right. I’m good with it. Obviously people will try to go to town on it. But the one thing I can do is stand there and be totally honest and go, ‘Yeah, I said that. That was Joe the performer and songwriter. Here I am presenting myself to you as Joe the politician, and here’s the ideas I want to work on.’ ”

This is not Keithley’s first kick at the political can – he ran for the Green Party in 1996 and 2001 – but this time he plans to make a full-fledged career change.

D.O.A. will roll through Edmonton one last time Friday night to play the Pawn Shop on the band’s farewell tour, before Keithley leaves punk for politics.

“I’m going into this process believing that I can win. And I believe I will win,” he says. With a laugh he adds, “You won’t see me for four, eight or 12 years depending how it goes.”

Keithley left the Green Party for various reasons – he cites vote splitting, lack of a coherent fiscal policy and an influx of social conservatives – but there was a time when he fiercely opposed the B.C. NDPs. Somewhere in his garage, Keithley still has a 2001 campaign sign that reads, “The N.D.P. have become bankrupt of good ideas and in some cases, morally bankrupt as well.”

“That’s what I thought at the time, absolutely,” Keithley says. “But hey, parties change as they go along. I’ve changed, and I believe the NDP in B.C. has changed as well.”

GigCity Edmonton DOAKeithley planned to become a civil rights lawyer before he discovered punk, and has been increasingly involved in activism since D.O.A. stormed college radio with its first single “Disco Sucks” in 1978. Through years of rocking against racism, apartheid and globalization, he says his proudest moments are the many benefit shows D.O.A. organized, including a massive two-night concert in 1989 to fight pollution in B.C.’s pulp and paper industry. At the end of the second night, Keithley joined Bryan Adams on stage for a duet of “Stand by Me” that would surely be a YouTube sensation had it happened 15 years later.

“I wish I had a tape of that,” Keithley says.

Last fall, he went door-knocking to “a couple thousand” homes in the Coquitlam area to launch his campaign. Some fans, bewildered to find their punk hero standing at their door in a three-piece suit, ran to grab their old D.O.A. records and get his autograph. But it was the self-proclaimed non-voters who Keithley spent the most time on.

“I’d tell them, ‘Give me five minutes and I’m going to try to talk you into democracy.’ I would tell them that people went to jail for democracy and the right to vote, and people were executed for that. So it’s not something you should waste, this right,” Keithley says.

“This is the rock that I’m standing on here, and why I’m doing this: I really think that people power can change the way that we approach things, rather than having big politicians, big media, big business telling the people how their lives should go. That’s wrong. That’s the tail wagging the dog. It’s got to be the other way around.”

Keithley’s No. 1 issue is education, particularly hiring more special needs and English as a Second Language teachers. He also aims to promote small business and get more people into skilled trades.

His time in the music business has taught him about the importance of compromise, and he knows punk rock’s immediacy won’t directly transfer to political office.

“Take a cautious, go-slowly approach. I think that’s the way to do it,” Keithley says.

After making 18 studio albums, surviving world tours, and influencing musical superstars like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Nirvana (which opened for D.O.A. in ’89), there are aspects of the hard-rock life that Keithley will miss. But at age 56 and with three kids, he could probably do without another sweaty club tour.

“Really seeing if you can drive the people wild (on stage), I still really love that. The camaraderie, and that, would be the two things I’ll miss,” Keithley says. “I won’t miss sitting in a van for hours and hours on end, I won’t miss sitting at sound check for hours on end. And I love talking to people, but I won’t miss talking to 100 drunk people a night.”

Naming 93-year-old activist/musician Pete Seeger as one of his idols, Keithley says he’ll keep making music in one form or another. But at this stage, the message has become more important than the music, and he’s raring to find out whether he can change the system more effectively from the inside.

B.C.’s 2013 provincial election is tentatively set for May 14.

“The thing is that people have got to realize that they’ve got to get involved and they can get out there and change things,” Keithley says. “That’s basically what we’ve been saying all along. We weren’t wrong, that’s for sure.”

No Problem, L.A.M.S. And Panik Attak will open Friday’s show. Tickets are $15 at